Flexibility and food safety are the two concepts that seem to come up most when asking equipment manufacturers about what dairy processors need out of their filling equipment.

We asked filler suppliers what they’re hearing from their customers, and a baker’s dozen responded. Here are their answers, edited for space:

DFR: What is driving development of new filling technology for dairy processing?

Anthony Subryan, president, ATS Engineering Inc., Brampton, Ontario: New filling technology is being driven by the variety of new styles of containers that our customers are bringing to market. To be more competitive and stand out on the shelf, the variation of container shapes that are being produced keeps changing. This drives us to constantly innovate in order to fill, seal and overcap these unique container geometries in the most efficient manner possible.

Hendrik Stoltz, director of equipment supply, Elopak, New Hudson, Mich.: First, flexibility; dairies increasingly need to adapt to changing product demands without dedicated filling equipment. Second, reliability, to maximize uptime and meet demanding production schedules.

James Coe, vice president of sales, Evergreen Packaging Equipment, Memphis, Tenn.: Plant consolidation has driven companies to operate larger plants with expanded distribution areas, pushing the need for longer shelf life. Processors are continually introducing new products to remain competitive in the marketplace, which also contributes to the need for new and improved filling technology.

Mike Collins, sales manager, Federal Mfg. Co., Milwaukee: Processors are continuously striving for greater operational efficiency. This affects filling technology by requiring equipment to be more flexible and cleanable.

Susan Lamar, sales/marketing, Fogg Filler, Holland, Mich.: Processors have a desire to reduce employee costs and use their employees’ time more efficiently. They are placing greater demands for equipment to be more automated, more user-friendly and more efficient than ever before.

Sue Paap, marketing manager, Norse Dairy Systems, Columbus Ohio: NDS is focusing on ways to make the most efficient use of customers’ floor space by designing fillers that achieve increased throughput per square foot. We’re doing this by focusing on customers’ high-bar filling needs for higher throughput, reducing or eliminating changeover time and increased automation.

John Cavanagh, chief of sales, Osgood Industries Inc., Oldsmar, Fla.: As the green movement continues to fuel exciting new innovations, packaging technologies branch out in new directions to address production waste. The flexibility of products and flavors, container sizes and shapes have and will sustain this development and growth. The challenge is to create equipment that utilizes the latest technologies and ensures ease of operation, while simultaneously protecting the individual and the company operating our machinery. Decreased downtimes translate to profitable daily operations, increased production and decreased waste.

Troy Sawvel, president, T.D. Sawvel Co. Inc., Maple Plain, Minn.: Most of the time new development is customer driven; they want a faster machine or would like to introduce a unique product to the market.

Yoshi Izumi, executive VP, Shibuya Hoppmann Corp., Elkwood, Va.: First is the desire to process and package dairy beverages to achieve extended non-refrigerated shelf life without adverse effects on product taste or the addition of preservatives. This is leading to an increasing acceptance and use of aseptic filling systems. Second is the desire to reduce packaging materials and packaging waste. Future packaging changes such as biodegradable nested containers could affect filling system designs in the future.  

Tom Shaver, VP of marketing, SIG Combibloc, Chester, Pa.: Packaging plays a further role in communicating the additional benefits and added value of the product, and it also offers added value itself through its own particular characteristics. If we look at the global packaging mix for UHT milk products, aseptic carton packs constitute the most in-demand packaging form. Consumers see carton packs as convenient and environmentally friendly. Competitive pressure in the dairy industry is growing and with it the need to develop innovative ideas that allow food manufacturers to differentiate their products from those of the competition, while at the same time using more cost-effective methods of production.

Murray Bain, VP marketing, Stanpac, Smithville, Ontario: Many customers want to produce many flavors in varying run sizes in a day. Equipment that can be very adaptable and incorporate quick changeovers help improves the dairy’s bottom line. 

Richard Totilo, director of product introductions, Tetra Pak Inc., Vernon Hills, Ill.: Operational cost performance – it is everywhere and with the global financial crisis there is a greater sense of urgency.  It is more important than ever to deliver filling line innovation and create operational value for the customer.   

Dave Kuenzler, product manager, filling systems, WCB Ice Cream, Northvale, N.J.: Developments in the ice cream filling sector are pushed by several forces: innovative packages like the square-round carton; new technologies like servo positioning drives have led to more precise filling, more efficient packaging and lower maintenance fillers compared to the last generation; and new complex products have created the need for flexible and innovative filling solutions. This covers ground from our cryogenic forming equipment being used to form ice cream cakes or imprint a logo on top of the ice cream to filling ice cream in metal cans.

DFR: How have issues like ensuring food safety, maximizing efficiency and increasing throughput impacted development of filling components?

Subryan: One of our key goals as a machinery manufacturer is to design fillers that have no place for bacteria to hide when the machines are properly washed down and sanitized.  At the same time, the highest-quality grades of stainless steel and plastic are necessary to ensure that everything on our machines can operate without failure in these kinds of harsh sanitizing conditions.

Stoltz: Efficiency is another critical issue. Machine designs must be reliability-based; we have integrated a lot of modular servo systems into our machines to replace mechanical components that needed frequent adjustment and maintenance.

Collins: Dairies are considering new options that weren’t available a few years ago – FDA Class 100 HEPA-filtered environments, steam-sterilizable product contact surfaces, non-contact filling valves, bottle and closure treatments, and sterile air blanketing to name a few. Older machines that were designed to run only one bottle and cap style are being replaced with machines that can run multiple bottle styles and multiple closure types.

Paap: In the area of food safety, our more recent changes include selecting more robust materials for safety guarding, incorporating a more open design to reduce potential contamination, and elimination of corrosive materials. 

Cavanagh: Plant operational procedures combined with well-developed OEM training programs foster a culture of safety at the factory level.

Izumi: Food contamination sources include contamination from containers and caps as well as from human interventions during the process. This has led to emphasis on efficient and extreme reliability in container and cap cleaning and decontamination.

Bain: Stanpac’s Flex E Fill’s quick-change attachments help maximize daily plant efficiencies.

Totilo: We see a demand for higher performance, lower operational costs and higher regulatory requirements. The industry and FDA are increasing the regulatory demands for process control, verification and validation. Tetra Pak’s approach has been to lead the industry with FDA approval of our filling machines. We continue this during the 2009 release of A3 (filling machine) Platform with iLine (integrated line) Technology.

DFR: What are your customers’ special needs for fillers, and how are you addressing them?

Subryan: The speed and efficiency of our fillers is paramount. By keeping downtime to an absolute minimum, our customers get maximum throughput in their operations. Speed isn’t the only thing that maximizes production. 

Stoltz: With the introduction of more specialty products, equipment must handle different viscosities, products with particles and even multiple products through the same filler nozzle. One of Elopak’s most significant features is the ability to fill difficult products at high speed while retaining extreme filling accuracy. This allows customers to stay within filling regulation while saving product and is a real payback benefit to investing in our technology. Another payback is energy efficiency. Our latest E-PS120UC machine, for example, uses up to 40% less air than previous models, which in turn reduces energy costs.

Coe: Throughput, up time and flexibility are the most important factors for our customers today and directly affect a plant’s efficiency. New machine models are designed with more servo motors resulting in more automation and less operator dependence. 

Collins: Federal’s customers are striving to produce their products in a more sustainable manner. One of the chief resources to conserve is water. Federal has been offering assistance to maintain decades-old fillers to provide clean-filled bottles that do not require post-fill rinse water. The “standard” Federal has been modified to perform better with myriad common liquids, from skim milk to whole milk to water to juice.

Lamar: Fogg’s dairy customers most often request longer shelf life or ways to reduce downtime for cleaning the valves. Fogg has been able to improve shelf life for many customers by adding ESL features to its filling systems. 

Paap: We continue to see needs for customization, particularly in filler controls. NDS has outfitted many of our fillers with menu-driven touch-screen controls, which allow customers to pre-program recipes for easy product changeover.

Cavanagh: Osgood’s dedication to meet and exceed our customer’s special requirements is a cornerstone of our business model. This mindset has enabled us to provide unique solutions to deal with issues ranging from multiple container shapes on a single machine without a carrier plate changeover. Osgood also has addressed the need to run multiple recipes on the same fill station.

Sawvel: They vary widely from custom-control packages to custom tooling configurations to all new filling solutions.     

Shaver: A filling machine is not a standalone unit but part of a system of interdependent components. The new CFA 124 and CFA 724 high-speed filling machines from SIG Combibloc are setting new standards for speed and performance. These new machines can fill 24,000 carton packs per hour, making the new aseptic high-speed filling machines the fastest in the world for small-size carton packages from 125 to 350 milliliters.

Bain: With limited space on the dairy processing floor, our customers want portability, a smaller footprint and quick changeover of attachments for the number of package sizes and configurations that are commonplace in today’s filling room.

Totilo: Speed and flexibility. Our new A3 Platform addresses this directly by allowing you to choose the A3 Speed Filling, focused directly on the customer needs to reduce costs in large-scale operations. Alternately, A3 Flex or A3 CompactFlex Filling, which come standard with quick-change volumes and options for volume conversions.  The focus here is moderate-size production and co-packers who require flexibility and protection for their capital investment.  

Kuenzler: One area where we have seen activity is the ability to switch back and forth quickly between different carton sizes and shapes. One way to overcome this problem is to build the filler in a way that the needed filling equipment for both cartons is permanently mounted on the filler. This can be done by building the filler either longer or wider. In the best-case solutions, there is almost no lost time to change from one carton to the other.

DFR: What product innovations has your company developed?

Stoltz: Recently we completed major upgrades to our high-speed quart and half-gallon fillers, particularly in the areas of carton sterilization and on the integrated cap applicators. And we introduced a new mini carton filler last year that fills 24,000 cartons per hour.

Coe: SingleSip, available on the N-100 machine, is a new closure being introduced for school milk and single-serve foodservice Eco-Pak containers. It provides ease of opening and convenient consumption of single serve beverages. The company also introduced a new machine, the Q-35, to the marketplace last fall. These machines include servo-driven functions and different levels of sanitation options. These machines will serve the small- to mid-size volume market.

Collins: For more than 65 years, Federal fillers have been of a size that allowed them to be built and shipped on a common machine base. The requirement for higher filling speeds for both small bottle and plastic gallons has caused us to develop filling systems that are modular, with the filling carousel on one base and the starwheels and capping turret on another. This allows as many as 60 filling stations on a single filling bowl for plastic gallon bottles.

Lamar: Fogg has designed Safety and Sanitation Guarding to keep the operator safe and to ensure food safety as well. It is equipped with class 100 HEPA filtration to ensure the filling environment is clean.  With the Semi-Automatic One-Way Recovery Trough, you can clean the valves in place without adding or removing any hardware. Our Microb-Blaster uses light technology to kill micro-organisms. It makes cap sanitation fast, cost effective, dry and able to retrofit to nearly any line.  

Paap: Besides the aforementioned controls, NDS has been on the leading edge of introducing robotics as a component of novelty filling systems. 

Cavanagh: Our use of multi-format (sequential plate) carrier plate configurations for varying cups and sizes is just one example. By incorporating multiple platens, changeover time is drastically cut back. Another advancement is adjusting fill rates on the fly via synchronized motors on the pump stations. This has led to the addition of integrated checkweighing systems. The integrated weigh scale in place of a pump station has become a standard piece of equipment for Osgood.

Sawvel: This year, we introduced a volumetric piston filler designed specifically for use with continuous freezers (Model 133DP-VCF).

Izumi: We have had some significant and successful achievements in the past decade. Among these are a handling system for containers of various shapes and sizes with almost no change parts; various methods of in-line cleaning and sterilization; application of pharmaceutical aseptic and isolation technology to foods; efficiencies of up to 98% at speeds up to 1,200 containers per minute; and high-speed fill weight and cap torque control.

Shaver: In response to the demand for new efficiency, SIG Combibloc has developed the CFA 124 and CFA 724 filling machines, each with a filling capacity of 24,000 carton packs per hour – the fastest in the world for small-carton package sizes. This is made possible by servo motors and the use of six instead of the previous four tracks. Each machine requires just one downstream facility. Depending on line configuration, the space requirements for each machine and downstream facility and the manpower required for operation remain virtually identical to those of the CFA 112 and 712 models, with their output of 12,000 carton packs per hour.

Bain: The Flex E Fill line of ice cream fillers has continued to be a cornerstone of many ice cream plants throughout North America. Stanpac has focused on attachments for today’s packages and quick in-plant tune-ups, and has streamlined the parts and technical service component of the Flex E Fill program.

Totilo: Tetra Pak is releasing the iLine concept. It is based on linking the new A3 platform of fillers with integrated distribution equipment solutions controlled by a central line controller. This allows for central integration, line adjustments and optimization of line performance. 

Kuenzler: A great new concept we are just starting to introduce is a modular filler, the FlexLine. A modular concept means you can accommodate virtually any scenario that might come along in terms of adapting the filler. It is a safe bet that it will never become obsolete because of changing packaging conditions.

DFR: What’s the “next big thing” in filling technology?

Stoltz: High-level automation and high-level diagnostics, integrated with plant production and maintenance systems, will be more important in the future. But flexibility is really the key issue. Dairies need to do more with less, which means machines capable of handling a greater diversity of product characteristics.

Coe: Another opportunity may be the integration of filling and secondary packaging into one machine.

Cavanagh: Shelf-sustainable packaging using aseptic and ultraclean fill design, increased capacity fillers (i.e. multi-lane filling, high production speed) to accommodate an ever-growing need for increased production rates, high-efficiency ratings combined with longer operating schedules, new container designs aimed towards decreasing secondary packaging requirements and material reduction are all at the top of the “next big item” list.  One stepping stone has been Osgood’s MAP package for heat seal stations.

Izumi: There are two technologies we have developed that we think may see widespread use in the coming years: in-line, high-speed electron-beam sterilization of plastic containers and caps; and high-speed blow–fill–seal technology that offers high efficiency with a low carbon footprint.

Kuenzler: The consumer buys the concept of the innovative new ice cream product, not the filler it was filled on. The “next big thing” in ice cream filling technology is coming from the processors. We look at the filler as an engineered solution to the processor’s filling needs, not a cookie-cutter solution the processor must try to make work for his special product. There are no filling problems without solutions; rather, there are filling solutions waiting to be engineered or developed as each new product appears.